By Tom Zulewski
Iron County Today
LAS VEGAS — As he walked into the media center at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Brad Keselowski wore a black hat with “500” standing tall in red numbers. His performance in the inaugural South Point 400 made the wardrobe addition possible.
Keselowski held off all challengers over the caution-filled closing laps and won the first race of the Monster Energy Cup Playoffs on Sept. 16, his third straight win overall, and the 500th win for his boss, team owner Roger Penske.
After wins at two of NASCAR’s prestige tracks at Darlington and Indianapolis, Keselowski had to work through six cautions over the final 57 laps.
“We didn’t have the fastest car, but my team was the best today at executing on pit stops,” said Keselowski, who led 75 laps. “It put us in a position to control the race and get through the chaos.”
There was plenty of chaos to go around, and it took out half of the 16 playoff contenders, all who finished 19th or worse. Pole-sitter Erik Jones and points co-leader Kevin Harvick got together on a wreck at lap 147 and finished in the last two spots — Jones in 39th and Harvick 40th.
“I don’t think we’re that much faster, but we’re taking advantage of our opportunities at a much higher level. That’s what great teams do,” Keselowski said. “I’m thrilled to see this because over the last three weeks, we haven’t been good enough to just dominated a race.”
Kyle Larson finished second and defending series champion Martin Truex Jr. finished third despite leading 96 laps, most of the nine drivers who spent time at the front. When asked about Keselowski’s surge of success, Truex had a simple answer.
“Brad clearly found a horseshoe,” Truex said. “Three races in a row, and he hasn’t had the best car. He hasn’t led the most laps in any of them, but he’s shown up at the end with good pit stops and good short-run speed.
“It’s a tough sport. A lot of things can happen, and there’s a lot to say for luck and momentum being on your side.”
Keselowski’s crew chief, Paul Wolfe, said the team success has made the most difference.
“We’ve executed well, and that’s a big part of it,” he said. “It goes in waves, and we’ve been on both sides if it many times. You’ve got to continue to stay focused, work on areas where you’re weak, and play to your strengths.”
After Truex Jr. and Larson, the next four finishers were playoff contenders, including Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney, Aric Almirola and Kyle Busch. Daniel Suarez, Ryan Newman and Paul Menard completed the top 10.
The average speed was 111.849 mph, and the race had 12 cautions for 59 laps, including an 11-minute red flag after a five-car wreck at lap 267. It was only the second cup race at Las Vegas that needed an overtime finish, the other coming in 2006.